Reclaiming the Tastes of a Forgotten Persian Holiday at Christmas
Memory can be a potent emotion, especially during the holidays. Growing up, my extended family would gather in Dayton, Ohio for Christmas. My dad, who grew up in Tehran, Iran and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, would dress up as Santa and we’d all share Persian food -- kebabs and tahdig (crispy rice) – plus American turkey with my father’s Iranian parents, my aunt and uncle, and my brother and cousins. The house smelled of strong spices – saffron, sumac, and turmeric – which only made us hungrier.
I remember especially Christmas 1984, when my parents threw an extravagant house party, with a feast that included several types of rice dishes, from lima bean rice (baghali polo) to cherry rice (albaloo polo). My dad even ordered a whole salmon from long-gone local French restaurant L’Auberge. He invited Persian and Lebanese friends, and my mom hired a pianist to play holiday songs on her grand piano. I remember most of it through old Polaroids, including one of me dancing with my dad. It was a festive time, but it was short-lived: two years later my parents divorced, and that ended our Persian holiday celebrations.
It might come as a surprise that Iranian-Americans celebrate Christmas, but even my paternal grandmother, who was a devout Muslim, participated in the holiday after she immigrated here. Yet there’s another, lesser-known holiday celebrated in Iran that I’ve been learning about: Shab-e Yalda, observed on the winter solstice.
I don’t know why my family never celebrated this holiday. It is rather obscure, even for Persians, and Norwuz (or Norooz), the Persian New Year in March, is much more prominent. Chef and The New Persian Kitchen cookbook author Louisa Shafia also missed out on the holiday growing up. She surmises Shab-e Yalda gets overlooked in the U.S. because of more mainstream holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah. “Unless you’re Iranian, you have other plans around that time of year. On the 21st most people are scurrying around, getting ready for the holiday,” she says.
Like my own, Shafia’s father emigrated from Iran to the states for his medical degree. Her mother is Jewish, so her family celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah; but now she tries to observe Shab-e Yalda every year. “We live in a Judeo-Christian country and most people don’t know about this tradition, and so I love to turn people on to it,” Shafia told me.
Similar to New Year’s Eve, the holiday’s goal is to keep people awake through midnight, and maybe until dawn, while snacking on Persian food. “It’s just about having delicious food and having a lot of snacks available well into the night, and [reading] some Hafez [14th century Iranian writer] poetry to help set the mood, and trying to stay up past midnight to achieve that feeling of overcoming the darkness and that you made it through the longest night.”
Najmieh Batmanglij, known as the Queen of Persian Cooking, writes of Shab-e Yalda in her New Food of Life cookbook, “The ceremony is traced to the primal concept of Light and Good against Darkness and Evil in the ancient Iranian religion. This night with Evil at its zenith is considered unlucky. From this day forward, Light triumphs as the days grow longer and give more light.”
Shafia likes to prepare classic winter dishes such as fesenjan (chicken pomegranate-walnut stew), Bottom of the Pot author Naz Deravian’s zeytoon parvardeh (pomegranate marinated olives), and add bright, seasonal fruits like clementines and blood oranges to dishes. To top it off, she suggests putting on a Spotify Persian dance playlist. “You’re laying the groundwork for spring and prosperity in the new year,” she says. “For me, everything should go really well – that’s a good omen.”
Who wouldn’t want to stay up all night enjoying Persian food and dancing to Googoosh? Shab-e Yalda is a new holiday for me, but eating Persian food in general is not.
“The beautiful thing about food is it touches us in a different way and it’s connected to memory, family, love, and it’s so personal and it’s so sensual, and when our government has so much animosity toward that whole part of world with the Muslim ban, I think, thank God we have food trying to spread a diplomatic message,” Shafia told me. When she eats Persian food, Shafia says, it conjures memories of her Aunt Melih, who “gave me my first real introduction to Persian food, and what a gift that was.”
I echo that sentiment, though I didn’t start to appreciate Persian culture until I was an adult. My father passed away in 2006 and my grandparents are long gone, so eating Persian food – whether it’s my mom’s home cooking, my cousin Mike’s delicious kotlet, or devouring Persian ice cream in Westwood, LA – helps me connect to my dad’s heritage and to those jolly Persian-American Christmases of yore when Dayton still had a strong Persian community (most Persians have since moved to the West Coast, and no Persian restaurants exist in the region) and when my family was trying to assimilate into American culture while honing their own customs.
This Christmas and Shab-e Yalda, maybe I’ll prepare a pot of fragrant Persian lime-filled ghormeh sabzi--Shafia has a great recipe for a vegetarian version--and attempt tahdig in order to honor the past but also establish new traditions.